Cincinnati, like most older cities, has experienced a long period of population and economic decline, especially relative to its overall region (i.e., sprawl). Looking at recent trends in the city, I’ve been prompted to ask whether or not it has hit an inflection point where decline has been halted and a new growth cycle of sorts is underway.
Cincinnati was once something like the 5th largest city in the US and was the dominant city of the interior West during the first half of the 19th century, much like Chicago today. A failure to embrace railroads and structural factors it never could have overcome (just to cite one example, an inability to quarry Wisconsin ice fields during the winter) led to the center of gravity shifting to the Windy City. Cincinnati entered a long period of relative and decline and stagnation, though regional economic employment and population grew on an absolute basis. As with many places, a basically land-locked core city saw population peak 1950, followed by decline. A particular recent low point in the city was the 2001 race riots in Over the Rhine, which may be the most recent major racial disturbance in a major American city.
Whether triggered by this or some other factor, Cincinnati in (mostly) the post-2000 embarked on a number of changes that did quite a transforming work in downtown. This included lowering a highway that cut downtown off from the riverfront, building two new stadiums, major redevelopment in Over the Rhine, etc. Notable here was completion the first phases of the Banks, a mixed use riverfront development that had been a poster-child for many of a city that could never get anything done. Similarly, a street car system seems on track thanks to Herculean efforts in the face of stunning obstacles. There has been new major office construction and also (more dubiously) a casino. Outside of downtown Cincinnati is replete with many high quality neighborhood business districts that have seen significant improvements. The University of Cincinnati embarked on a major starchitect oriented building spree, etc, etc.
Other cities can tell similar tales, but what made me specifically consider Cincinnati was a couple factors. First is just the huge difference in feel and palpable physical change between visits I made in 2008 and in 2010. I was not the only one who noticed as even firebrand conservative talk radio host (and pretty rabid anti-city guy) Bill Cunningham changed his tune on Over the Rhine, singing its praises.
Also, there’s been a political shift as well. Previously many Cincinnati initiatives had been derailed by a very active Tea Party style group called COAST – “Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes” (which actually predated the Tea Party) They were a pretty fearsome force to be reckoned with for a period of time. However, after failing to defeat the proposed streetcar in a referendum, their power appears to have wanted considerably in the city. The locus of opposition to city initiatives now comes from the statehouse, and also from collar county politicians like Rep. Steve Chabot, who was gerrymandered into a district where he represents downtown Cincinnati while being supported by a Warren County voter base. This isn’t to say that COAST is always wrong. Cincinnati and Hamilton County have cut some astoundingly bad deals that have inflicted taxpayer torment (such as the aforementioned stadiums). But their loss of influence is suggestive of demographic change in the city. Had more urban-oriented residents been attracted to the city?
To test this, I took a look at some base data. Here’s a look at total population in the region since 1950:
Here’s a look at percentage change by Census year. The change is over the preceding decade. So 1990 represents the change between 1980 and 1990:
Lastly, here’s a look at population share within the region:
As of 2010, none of these show a material change in the sprawl paradigm. I was hoping to see especially that Cincinnati had reversed its share loss within Hamilton County and/or that its percentage loss had decreased, but this was not the case. The 1980-1990 decade was actually the best for the city, and the population percentage losses have increased in the two decades since. Similarly, share loss even within Hamilton County has continued to grow.
However, I find the numbers interesting. Suburban Hamilton County was the growth juggernaut in the 50s and 60s, but it basically flatlined in 1970. I know geography complicates things in the area, but from my drives about town, there appears to be land left that could be developed but hasn’t been. Suburban Hamilton County itself actually lost population during the 2000s. This is in line with general inner suburban declines around America. I suspect this has had an impact in bridging the city-suburb divide within Hamilton County because now almost the entire county can related to being the “inner city” if you will. Many of these areas are in pretty much the same boat as the city, and thus could find alignment of interests.
Also, the loss of population in the city suggests a possible alternative narrative for why the Tea Party lost influence. Namely that its political supporters in some Cincinnati neighborhoods gave up and left, leaving a pro-downtown type majority coalition. Whatever the case, it provides an opportunity to achieve civic momentum because there’s more policy consensus, though state level Republicans can continue making things difficult. (Again, this says nothing of the merits of various policies themselves, merely consensus for action). The core population growth was real in the past decade, but concentrated in downtown and though the percentages were pretty high (around 30%) it was on a pretty small base so the total gains were only about 1,350 people. Good, but not good enough. Here’s the NYT Census map:
Looking at jobs, the core zip code of downtown, 45202, lost 19,500 private sector jobs between 2000 and 2011, a drop of 23%. (Zip code 45219, which includes the University of Cincinnati, had a slight job gain, but on a comparatively smaller base of only 14,400). This suggests that there hasn’t been an economic inflection point either.
To date the data would not appear to have confirmed the notion of a center city inflection point in Cincinnati. However, the change in the feel of the city is, as I said, palpable. Last time I was there I just generally got the feeling that the wind was back in the city’s sails. Time will tell if this is the start of a real trend or whether it is just a bump created by unsustainable public investment and a change in national trends. Given the high quality “bones” of the city, Cincinnati is one of the place I’d be watching to see if post-industrial cities can really pull off a turnaround.
If you’re interested in the raw data and charts I created for this post, here’s the Excel file.